Endnote to ‘Privileged Guilt’
June 23, 2011 § 15 Comments
This seems to be the conclusion to the last post:
Privilege cannot be shed, and therefore guilt is an incoherent response. I mean the kind of privilege that’s actually pernicious from a left perspective, which is not simply superiority or advantage, as it tends to be caricatured. Intelligent, cultured, upper-middle-class white men are not being called out for being intelligent, cultured, or even upper-middle-class — dull-witted, undereducated, working class white men still benefit from being white and male. If they get called out, it is (or should be) because their words and actions deny or ignore the role that their whiteness, maleness, and middle-classness have played in the acquisition of material advantages that may or may not result in intelligence, competence, good looks, or any other ideal quality. That is, when they actively justify their privilege with what is unjustifiable. So it is a critique of behavior. And yet the critique is still unavoidably directed at who they are, because the value of existence is not distinct from the position one occupies in the world and what one does with it, neither of which are wholly subject to individual will. Privilege tends to conceal from its beneficiaries an existential truth that everyone else is forced to recognize over and over again. Shame at being white, male, or bourgeois isn’t any more justified than shame at being black, female, or working class, the latter three of course having their own troubled histories.
(as an aside, the corollary to this point is that identity-based pride is no less compensatory than guilt — everything depends on what they transition to; I would argue they aren’t necessary conditions for anything)
What I’m calling ‘privileged guilt’ is not only ethically incoherent, it is central to a practice, the establishment of hierarchical distinctions within privileged identities: the ‘enlightened liberal,’ the ‘radical leftist,’ the ‘race traitor,’ in contrast to the ‘ignorant racist,’ ‘falsely conscious liberal imperialist,’ ‘consumer whore,’ ‘animalistic frat boy,’ etc. All of which reaffirm the idealist distinctions leftists should be trying to undo, and narrow the scope of political importance to (surprise!) the privileged group. In this context, guilt, along with its compulsive displays of ‘awareness’ and ‘sympathy,’ is just another form of conspicuous consumption.
Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness” is a good place to start thinking more about this:
“…whiteness studies should involve at least a double turn: to turn towards whiteness is to turn towards and away from those bodies who have been afforded agency and mobility by such privilege. In other words, the task for white subjects would be to stay implicated in what they critique, but in turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism, as histories of this present, to turn away from themselves, and towards others.”
A turn to historical responsibility that doesn’t culminate in the self is as good a definition of activism and a repudiation of privileged guilt as I’ve seen.
i guess what i am saying is that in my experience if white folks want to be respectful of poc or understand where they are coming from–they dont need a workshop. there are centuries of writing from poc that they can dive into. there are plenty of poc in their neighborhoods and community organizations. when white folks are ready to be anti-racist, when they are ready to turn from facing the center, to facing the margins, and stand with us. we will be here.
they dont need to be converted or preached to.
they dont need to learn the right words to use. or the right theory.
we dont need more of that.
and it is harmful to them to give them a bunch of new theory and rhetoric while they are still angling to get as close to the center as possible. to get to the top of the caterpillar pile.
and antiracism theory will just be used as another means, another tactic for them to reach their goal.
This argument implies something that can serve as an example of how whiteness is not only complicated for white people. If the turn away from superficial ‘correctness’ is to be taken seriously, it would require a reciprocal effort from nonwhites, not only to move away from ‘education’ as a solution, but also critical attitudes that assume educated speech as a norm. And that is not in the power of anti-racist whites to ask. Whites can’t honestly be expected to move on from a constant fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ if the ‘right thing’ retains normative force, that is, if privileged guilt is the dominant form of white antiracism. ‘Suck it up’ or ‘deal with it’ just encourage martyrdom, claiming that forceful ‘calling out’ of either aspirational or experienced white allies is done out of ‘love’ (a defense I read somewhere) is condescending. Of course words matter — outside narrow liberal and activist circles racist rhetoric is all too common and operates precisely by disavowal. But that is also why the demands of solidarity are sometimes in conflict with the demands of critique.